Medevacing the war


General Culture, General Photography

“What really dismays me […] is how three major organizations could send out three of the best photographers in the business and, within the space of just over two weeks, proudly publish nearly the same photo-story.” writes Michael Shaw. There are quite a few interesting points to be made here, maybe I’ll be able to untangle the ones I see. (more)

First of all, these helicopter shots are obviously echoes of Larry Burrows’ famous One Ride With Yankee Papa 13. Note that I wrote “echoes,” I could have easily chosen a somewhat less flattering description.

That said, Hyperallergic linked to Michael’s story using the headline War Photography’s Lack of Originality. I don’t want to unfairly single out anyone here (just for the record, I think Hyperallergic is a fantastic site), but the issue of originality really is not what matters so much here. In fact, that’s why I always feel a bit queasy pointing out that I’ve seen some war photography before (like in the preceding paragraph): taking photographs of war is not the same kind of activity as for example designing clothes. Producing war photographs is not entertainment, and looking at it shouldn’t be, either. So we cannot - or maybe I should say: should not - demand “originality,” because what the images - along with the text - should do is to inform us about the war.

In fact, we should not complain when we hear ourselves say “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” In the case of war we should ask why if we’ve seen it before we’re seeing it again. OK, we should complain, but not about the fact that someone is showing us something we have seen before, but about the fact that the same shit is happening again!

As it is, photography does very little to change wars. But it’s not the photographs’ (or photographers’) fault!

After nine years, there’s very little original left about the war in Afghanistan. But unlike the fashion produced nine years ago, we should be more interested than ever in what is going on there, especially since it’s not that hard to argue that the costs - human and financial - outweigh whatever anyone is gaining from that war very massively (this statement is probably not true for the Afghan drug cartels, some of which seem to be connected to the Afghan government; see, for example, this story).

In the comments under Michael’s post, photographer Alan Chin notes that the system of “embedding” journalists with military units might be responsible for the coverage. He adds

“Nine years into these wars, there’s very little that we haven’t seen before. Photographers have to continue to cover it, for the historical record.”
I’d agree with both, but I think the former actually harms the latter. Military historians will have a great time looking at the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, since there is going to be so much photography of reporting done right near the US military. But the picture becomes woefully incomplete otherwise. Our historical record is heavily biased.

That’s not just a problem for future historians, it’s also a problem for us right now: If all we see are soldiers on our side (and maybe occasionally casualties caused by the other side), what do we learn about the war? How can we come up with an educated opinion about the war? The answer is obvious: We can’t.

Of course, one needs to point out that in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many areas are no-go zones for Western journalists. But then you see books like, for example, Baghdad Calling: Reports from Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq by Geert van Kesteren, an utterly fantastic achievement (which coincidentally also blows huge holes into our narratives about how photojournalism should work), and you realize that, well, things are possible, even when it seems they are not.

But back to the medevac stories, what is missing still is for us to realize that the story might begin with the photographers. But that’s just the beginning. First of all, someone has to come up with the money for those photographers. Now, even if a photographer finances her or his trips entirely on her or his own, there still is no guarantee that even the most stunning images will make it onto the covers of newspapers or magazines. I yet have to speak to a single photojournalist who will not mention fights with photo editors. We all are perfectly aware of the fact that photojournalists make decisions about which photos to take - and we’re more than happy to take them to task for that. But we tend to ignore the fact that newspapers and magazines make decisions which images to use. Actually, I think that we’re complaining way too much about photographers and not nearly enough about newspapers or magazines. There is more to talk about concerning newspapers and magazines than just whether or not they will exist on an iPad.

The combination of all of this is what, I think, makes this whole complex so tricky. If three well-known photojournalists all produce the same kinds of images who is to blame (provided we want to blame someone)? Do we want to blame the photographers who went for the dramatic medevac shots (maybe having Burrows’ imagery in mind)? Do we want to blame the photo editors for picking those images? Do we want to blame the makers of those newspapers/magazines who decide about the general narratives they want to include and exclude in their publications? Maybe the government for whatever it is we might want to blame them for? Maybe we even want to blame ourselves a bit, given that we demand “originality” and are still waiting for that one image that oh-so conveniently might sum up the war - so we can make a decision what to make of it?

I obviously don’t have a good answer. I wish I did. But I have the feeling that all of those different aspects are interconnected. We can’t pretend we can talk about just one and ignore all the others. For example, if we really cared about the news, bought more newspapers (or were willing to give them money for the stuff we read online), and took newspapers to task for what they’re doing do you think we’d be in the situation we’re in right now? I’m just saying.

Debates like Michael’s provide very important starting points for us, to have a debate about the various aspects I outlined above (plus all the ones I missed). We should use the opportunity.